“Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.”
George Eliot, Adam Bede


The hits from 2020 keep right on coming. Last week it was the legendary St. Lous Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson. This week, it’s guitar hero Eddie Van Halen.

Any of you who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s can attest to the power of Van Halen and what it felt like the first time you heard those ferocious guitar licks. Dance the Night Away, off of the second album, will always epitomize the band for me – technical genius that brought forth joy when you heard it. Eddie’s impish grin is forever etched in my mind when a Van Halen tune came on the radio. A decided departure from the pained grimace employed by previous guitar gods. Eddie seemed to be having as much delivering the sound as we did receive it.

As sad as the passing of Van Halen is, there is some solace in that his death brought us all together, if just for a moment. Right, and Left was forgotten, as lasting memories were shared. For just a brief respite, it was refreshing to be able to leave behind the constant political wrangling, and realize that in some things we are more similar than different.


If you’ll remember, back in the Spring the Governor and his handmaiden concocted this fantastic – that’s sarcasm in case you missed it – idea to transform literacy in Tennessee. It called for employing only one method of teaching reading the Science of Reading. It increased testing by mandating that all LEA’s utilize a state chosen benchmark test administered 3x a year. It included mandates for teacher prep programs in Tennessee to change how they taught reading instruction. It would serve to rob LEA’s of local control. At its core was promised payday for the preferred textbook vendors of the TNDOE.

Allow me a brief side note here, my favorite highlight from the recently concluded House Education Committee hearing was when Commissioner Schwinn was asked how many material waivers have been granted this year. She stammered and stuttered, before claiming that she didn’t know offhand. Meanwhile Charlie Bufalino, Assistant Commissioner of Policy & Legislative Affairs, who was seated at the table with her, rifled through papers on the table as if they contained the answer.

The computer in front of Ms. Schwinn could have provided the answer quite easily. If you go to the TNDOE Website, you can see that over half of Tennessee’s school districts received a waiver to adopt materials,, not on the official adoption list. The most common names attached to those waivers being CLK, Wit,, and Wisdom, and Expidentory Learning. Probably just coincidence that these are the same names that the Department of Education had been breaking their back unsuccessfully to get included on the approved list and were the beneficiaries of an extensive PR campaign throughout Tennessee while the adoption process was ongoing.

So keep in mind, that when you hear the TNDOE speak about a high-quality curriculum, they have some very specific curriculum in mind. What they are really talking about is the product of a handful of select companies in which they’ve chosen to do business with. Including those that the commissioner has a past history with. Great Minds – marketers of Wit and Wisdom and Eureka! Math -also provide curriculum for the California charter school which she founded and served as Executive Director.

Going back to the Spring and the proposed Reading Bill, legislators caught on to the game pretty quickly and what should have been a slam duck – it was after all the Governor’s signature initiative – suddenly became a protracted battle. As the battle became more heated, rumors started to swirl that Schwinn and company were privately bragging that they didn’t care if the bill passed or not, they had an alternate revenue stream to fund the initiative regardless of the intentions of legislators. Ultimately the bill did not pass, and Schwinn was stripped of the power to grant waivers. That power now resides with the State Board of Education.

In reality, it didn’t matter, because the waivers had already been pushed through and it was about to be Christmas for a select group of vendors. Than COVID-19 hit. Money got scarce real quick. Those LEA’s may have agreed to adopt, but they had no cash in which to buy. You can imagine how that sat with the TNDOE’s friends. Luckily, the TNDOE was ready with an answer.

Last month, the TNDOE received a federal grant to the tune of 20 million dollars(Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grant_Grant Award Notification) Sounds great,, doesn’t it? Let’s read through it.

The application makes repeated reference to a Tennessee Comprehensive Literacy plan, while not acknowledging that the bill supporting the plan did not pass in the General Assembly this year.  The only plan produced by a Google search is the one from 2016 by then-Commissioner McQueen. So I’m a little confused from the get-go.

But let’s move on. The application submitted by the TNDOE calls for one new position at $75k a year to administer the grant, while the brunt of the money, 3.5 million, goes to “contractual” items. $75K seems like an awfully small amount to administer an initiative of this size,  That’s an opinion reinforced upon reading the job requirements,

• Serving as TDOE’s internal and external point person for all grant-related activities and coordinating all events, meetings, and workstreams;

• Monitoring and ensuring project progress through formal and informal data analysis with emphases on subgrantees’ experiences and continual improvement; and

• Managing internal and external communications with an emphasis on facilitating dialogue and collaboration, amplifying educator voices, and assessing impact.

More specific duties will include—but not be limited to—planning regional convenings, producing internal newsletters, attending webinars and walkthroughs, tracking district participation, managing vendor performance, running project team check-ins, managing expenditures within budget, and working with TDOE’s research office to collect, analyze, and act effectively on data such as stakeholder input, teacher practice, and student outcomes. Please see the detailed activities and milestone chart to see the monthly detailed responsibilities.

That’s a lot of work for $75K. In my humble opinion.

Also keep in mind, the TNDOE can’t create positions on their own. Only the legislature can do that. So the question is, where is the proposed position coming from? Is it one already approved in budget? Is it duties being assigned from elsewhere? Or is it a position they will ask for in this years budget? Inquiring minds want to know?

Now I want you to play a game with me. Go get a supply of your favorite adult beverage and then read through the grant’s application. Every time you see the word, “High Quality” curriculum, take a swig. At the end of the application, if you can, let me know who you think the true beneficiary of this grant will be.

Let’s examine a few passages from the application. First up a recap of the recent past,

But in November 2019 TDOE launched a textbook review process that culminated in local adoptions of high-quality English language arts (ELA) materials across the state, and in February 2020 Governor Bill Lee’s State of the State Address announced a comprehensive approach to literacy development, Tennessee’s Comprehensive Literacy Plan. State and local budgets will support most aspects of this comprehensive literacy plan; this grant application seeks funding to scale one key component: instructional support networks (ISNs) that will provide intensive and ongoing services to our highest-need districts.

I’m sure that federal officials are unfamiliar with the Tennesse Textbook adoption process, but rest assured it is not one under the purview of the TNDOE. In fact, it is designed to limit their involvement to merely that of an advisory role. Something that seems lost on Ms. Schwinn and company. I would think elected state officials would find this problematic.

Secondly, nowhere in the application is it mentioned that the governor’s “Comprehensive Literacy Plan” was not passed into law and he in fact pulled the funding for the plan despite the state bringing in an unanticipated $480 million during the pandemic.

Some of you may enjoy this passage,

In a policy brief for the nonprofit StandardsWork (Curriculum Research: What We Know and Where We Need to Go), David Steiner, also of Johns Hopkins University, used “gold standard” studies included in the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse to make the claim that, “schools that switched from business as usual to one of these [high-quality curriculum] instructional methods could move students’ performance from the 50 th to the 60 th or even 70 th percentile. When extrapolated across an entire class, grade, or school, such impacts could prove transformative.”

In case you are unfamiliar with David Steiner, he’s the guy that Ms. Schwinn brought in mid-way through the textbook adoption process to review the process itself and found it lacking. During a Spring hearing by the Senate Education Committee, Chairwoman Delores Gresham asked the extent of the commissioner’s relationship with Mr. Steiner. Schwinn responded in a manner that indicated a very cursory relationship. An answer that raised eyebrows than, and probably should continue to do so.

Along those lines is this passage,

During 2018 and 2019, TDOE focused intensively on defining high-quality ELA materials and using that definition to inform state and local adoptions. Steiner and colleagues’ 2017 working paper cited several research studies that support content-rich curriculum that is focused on knowledge-building and takes a rigorous approach to learning. TDOE’s definition of high-quality ELA materials closely aligns to the idea of content-rich curricula. The state-led focus on high-quality materials thus ensured that Tennessee districts made wise choices when adopting new ELA curricula in 2020.

That Steiner fellow sure seems to be allowed to exert a lot of influence, considering that Ms. Schwinn has little knowledge of him beyond his reputation.

Remember when Ms. Schwinn recently told legislators that she is not a supporter of Common Core? This passage from the application seems to cloud that assertion,

While some grade bands have strong curricular options, some grades do not have fully aligned and research-based options. Foundational reading curriculum is a case in point: recent research on phonemic awareness (PA) and advanced phonemic awareness (APA) in particular (e.g., Kilpatrick, 2016, 2019) has revealed gaps in even the most highly-rated foundational skills products. To address this need, TDOE has partnered with the Core Knowledge Foundation and Meredith and David Liben of Liben Education Consulting to develop supplemental PA and APA supports and integrates them into a comprehensive suite of foundational skills materials tailored to Tennessee’s standards and context. All Tennessee educators will have free access to these materials beginning in June 2020, along with guidance on how to weave them together with the knowledge-building curricula on the state’s adoption list in line with the Simple View of Reading (Scarborough, 2001). In other words, Tennessee teachers supported by the proposed ISNs will be teaching foundational reading skills using materials of even higher quality than the best products currently on the market and in use elsewhere.

In case you are not familiar with the Liben’s work, per the Achievethecore website, “David synthesized the research behind the Common Core State Standards in ELA, and, with his wife Meredith, was part of the research team that determined the complexity levels for the standards.” So this begs the question, if we are not employing Common Core, why are we employing Common Core architects?

And  another portion that should raise eyebrows,

Plan takes a birth through postsecondary education approach. Another way in which TDOE’s literacy supports are comprehensive is that they are aligned across sectors and grade spans. TDOE K–12 academic division and early childhood (birth to five-year-old) divisions sit in one office under a single Chief of Standards and Materials. The two divisions coordinate work with statewide organizations including the Young Child Wellness Council and the governor’s designated state early childhood advisory council, where Tennessee’s Head Start State Coordinator represents TDOE on that council. These established partnerships and communication channels will enhance the implementation of CLSD-funded activities.

Hmmm…how is this different than the recently withdrawn plan for “Child Welfare Checks”? I’d argue that it is just a reiteration of an idea that’s already been rejected.

The application outlines a supposed intention to “supplement not supplant” LEA’s.

Supports for LEAs will “supplement, not supplant.” Supplying educators with instructional materials selected from the State Board of Education’s adoption list, or with other high-quality materials granted an adoption waiver by TDOE, is a baseline expectation for LEAs in Tennessee. We do not propose to use CLSD funds to supplant that integral function of local providers. Rather, we plan to raise supports for Tennessee literacy educators to the next level, one that is too rarely attainable at the local level: providing ongoing instructional support networks tailored to the specific instructional materials, training and management to support the unique needs of the districts within each regional network. One reason researchers have documented so clearly the difference in efficacy between high-quality materials alone and when paired with implementation supports is that—for all the reasons shown in the needs assessment and literature review above—educators and education systems so frequently go without the implementation supports they need to make the most of their materials. This proposal is intended to disrupt the one-strategy approach pattern that has not had sustainable impact on regional infrastructures, district support, instructional leader practices, teachers’ instructional quality, and most importantly, student achievement in Tennessee.

Hmmm…I wonder how supplemented LEA’s felt during the textbook adoption process.

Since the brunt of these resources will be doled out via sub-grants, I think it’s important to look out how those sub-grants will be handled,

All LEA subgrantees, including network district participants and mentor districts, will receive approximately $73,000 per year to procure instructional support services from an implementation support vendor from the TDOE approved vendor list. Districts will work within their regional network to collaboratively select the same vendor so that the vendor capacity can be used efficiently. The subgrants will total approximately $3,500,000 per year ($17,520,000 over five years). Through TDOE’s vendor selection process, TDOE will negotiate a flat rate with each vendor allowing all LEAs to receive services at the same cost. In addition, network participant districts (not mentor districts) will each receive a $10,000 stipend each year for materials and travel costs related to the instructional support networks—a $400,000 yearly total ($2,000,000 over five years).

Yea…like I said…

So what are the promised returns for this grant? Well first you are going to have to implement some measurement tools, right?

The goal of all TDOE efforts will be to increase levels of literacy proficiency among Tennessee students and ensure that districts have sustainable systems to maintain high-quality literacy practices after the life of the grant. We will measure success using state-provided diagnostic assessments in grades K and 2; statewide ELA assessments in grades 5, 8, and 9; and ACT reading college readiness measure in high school. It will take time for these student data to reflect the changes embedded in the literacy framework and the shifts necessary for instruction, especially in light of the new learning environments COVID-19 is necessitating. Student performance measures will therefore become a focus at the end of year two of the grant program. In order to adapt support and maintain effective change management strategies through the regional networks, TDOE will also monitor implementation through leading indicators of success, including improvement in teacher knowledge, mindsets, and practice. Teacher knowledge and mindset measures will involve perceptual data on self-efficacy, curriculum efficacy, and student capacity. Teacher practice will be assessed during monthly walk throughs, tracked informally through the IPG in year two, and shared more formally in year three.

So we are going to increase the assessment of both students…and teachers. Who signed up for that?

For students, the expectation is a 5% increase in proficiency scores by the end of year 5. But wait a minute, didn’t the Commissioner just announce a 50% drop in proficiency scores due to school closures. So 20 million dollars is only going to mitigate 5% of that? Hmmm…

There is a lot to unpack in this application, but it’s hard to see this grant as anything but an end round on legislators. It gives the TNDOE resources to do as they please with little oversight from those legislators. As such, I find it very concerning. I encourage everyone to read through it and let legislators know how you feel about it. It’s a lot of power to put in the hands of people that have shown little ability to use it prudently.

Included in the application are several letters of support for the grant. These are the most disappointing for me. Among them are people that I know, know better. But, then again I’ve become used to people talking one way in public and another in private. It’s complicated, right? Still, the sting persists.

At the beginning of this piece, I pointed out that the COVID resulted in delaying a big payday for Ms. Schwinn’s preferred vendors. I’ll give credit to the TNDOE for acknowledging that in the conclusion of their application,

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, however, state and local funding for curriculum implementation supports fell drastically: without CLSD support, we project that TDOE will be able to run two or three networks supporting implementation of its pre-K–2 foundational skills curriculum supplement but none of the other high-quality ELA materials being adopted across the state, while many districts will have little funding left over for aligned instructional supports once they purchase their new ELA materials. Federal support for eight regional ISNs will ensure that high-quality materials benefit from coherent systems of support in dozens of Tennessee’s most rural and impoverished districts, helping disrupt the state’s pattern of one-dimensional literacy improvement measures and galvanize real, lasting change.

Yes, indeed.

Before I wrap this up, I want to draw your attention to the included resume of Chief of Standards and Material Lisa Coons. Under the listing of accomplishments while the Executive Officer of Priority Schools for MNPS, she lists the following,

Re-designed the MNPS priority school division from an office that supported nine priority schools to a division that supported 23 priority schools in September 2019.

That’s a re-design that MNPS would have preferred not to make. Not exactly something I would be proud of, but what do I know.

In the end, this is just one more overreach by a commissioner empowered by a Governor to do nothing but disrupt. Personally, I think this year, Tennessee’s teachers and students have seen more than enough disruption.

That’s it for today.

If you’ve got time and are looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

Don’t forget, if you have student-written blog posts you’d like to see reach a wider audience…send them on. I’d love the opportunity to share them.

Categories: Education

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